Friday, July 14, 2006

So what's with the fascist salute?

The latest Israeli-Lebanese crisis, provoked by Hezbollah, has reminded me of something about this organization that has idly perplexed me for a while. It is well known that Lebanese Hezbollah (or Hizbullah) is a Shiite Islamist-theocratic terrorist organization committed to the destruction of Israel, with a deranged and blatantly anti-semitic world-view. In addition to its effectiveness in terrorism and guerrilla warfare, it has also proved itself capable of running local governments and providing social services in a notably more effective and less corrupt way than the Lebanese state, and it has substantial support in the Lebanese Shiite community. There's nothing that makes these different features of Hezbollah necessarily incompatible, of course.

What is more puzzling to me is how and why Hezbollah developed a fondness for the stiff-armed fascist salute. Here are two photos from Hezbollah events that illustrate this. (These photos were posted by Gene at Harry's Place, but I've seen them both before, and others like them as well.)

Of course, there was a period in the 1920s and 1930s when European fascism had considerable prestige and ideological influence in many places around the world, including the Middle East. But Lebanese Hezbollah was formed long after that, in the 1980s. And after World War II even genuinely fascist movements in the Middle East, like the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, have tended to avoid the kinds of symbolism that would link them directly to Hitler or Mussolini.

So when and why did the Lebanese Hezbollah come to adopt the fascist salute? Does this stiff-armed salute have a local source different from inter-war European fascism--perhaps as an adaptation of some kind of Islamic gesture? (If so, does any other organization or movement in the area use it?) And even if that's the case, isn't Hezbollah concerned that the historical associations of this salute might be bad for public relations? If, as seems more likely, this is a direct appropriation of the classic fascist salute, then how did that come about? There's nothing Islamic about Hitler or Mussolini, as far as I know.

I can't help feeling curious about this. Does anyone know the answers?

--Jeff Weintraub